NHL Must Use Head on Head Shots
For half a century, the NHL was lucky. Then Minnesota North Stars center Bill Masterton carried the puck into the Oakland Seals zone and, after making a pass, was checked by two Seals.
Masterton fell backwards. The back of his head smashed into the ice. Blood poured out of his mouth and nose. He passed out.
Two days later, on Jan. 15, 1968, Masterton was dead. He was 29. An annual trophy was named after Masterton. He is still the only NHL player killed from a play on the ice.
I hope the league does something quickly to maintain Masterton's singular tragedy, because week after week, it seems now, hockey highlights are darkened by the image of a player prone or prostrate on the ice, not moving, apparently unconscious. What deposited him there was a shot to the head.
On Monday, it was Devils defenseman Anssi Salmela who was blindsided by a shoulder-to-shoulder hit from Flyers forward Jeff Carter. It knocked Salmela out face down on the ice. He was carted away and is now suffering a concussion.
Two Fridays ago, it was Panthers forward Michael Frolik who was leveled by an elbow to his head from Capitals defenseman Mike Green. Frolik got up and Green was sent to the penalty box and later suspended for three games.
On Jan. 16, it was the Devils wing Patrik Elias who for a moment was rendered senseless by a shoulder to his chin from Colorado defenseman Ryan Wilson. Elias was removed on a stretcher and missed the next 10 games with a concussion before playing the past two. Elias said he has recovered to play in Vancouver as captain of the Czech Republic Olympic team.
Elias should be safer playing Olympic hockey than the NHL's. The ice is bigger. There is more skating than checking.
Most important, hits to the head in Olympic hockey are illegal, period.
It doesn't matter if they come from the front or the blindside. It doesn't matter if the target requires a gurney or bounces right up. The International Ice Hockey Federation that governs Olympic hockey outlawed head shots in 2002 with its Rule 540 and reiterated in November that it intends to enforce it at the Winter Games.
"The calling of this rule follows the same principles as the rule on checking from behind," IIHF sport director Dave Fitzpatrick stated in November on the federation's Web site. "This means a two-minute minor plus a 10-minute misconduct, a five-minute major plus an automatic game misconduct or a match penalty.
"The IIHF has a supplementary discipline rule where all such calls can be reviewed and additional suspension added if deemed necessary."
The NHL shouldn't any longer be debating how to handle head shots. It should have outlawed those years ago. It shouldn't wait until 10 years after a tragedy, as it did in ordering helmets be worn following Masterton's death, to do so. To the league's credit, it started studying concussions in the late '90s.
In November, the NHL's general managers even agreed to form a committee to explore concussions further before their next scheduled meeting next month. And last month, they convened in London, Ontario, for the London Hockey Concussion Summit to examine the debilitating effects of brain injuries in hockey at all levels. They heard from medical experts like Dr. David Mulder, president of the NHL Physicians Society, and Dr. Ruben Echemendia of the NHL's neuropsychological testing program.
They learned from Boston University researchers that Reggie Fleming, a defenseman and wing known as much for fighting as scoring during a 15-year career that ended in 1974, died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease known to cause memory loss, depression and dementia. Fleming was the first hockey player known to have been tested for the disease, known as C.T.E.
Against that backdrop, the longer the league -- whose athletes continue to get bigger, faster and stronger -- continues to do nothing the more it is allowing its players to engage in nothing less than Russian Roulette.
As Fitzpatrick stated further in November: "This rule is backed by scientific research and study. The application of the rule begins to address the insurance costs for medical attention of injured players, plus the insurance for contracts between injured players and their club for missed time due to such head injury. We have learned through our research that the recovery from a concussion, and the return to play, is an individual one and can vary from player to player and increases with each additional concussion sustained."
On top of that, of course, are studies from concussions in other sports -- most importantly football -- that show head shots can lead to debilitating conditions like dementia. The NFL and college football in recent years have become more proactive in guarding against blows to the head. They've outlawed hits to the head on quarterbacks and defenseless receivers.
Even baseball recently ordered coaches down the baselines to wear helmets after a minor league base coach, Mike Coolbaugh, died from a ruptured blood vessel soon after being struck below the ear by a line drive.
My suggestion is not about smoothing the roughness in hockey. This isn't about removing goons from the game or eliminating fighting. (Although I must ask: If NFL players can wallop each other play after play and not wind up squaring off, but shaking hands afterward instead, why can't hockey players do the same?)
This isn't even about promoting more finesse in the NHL's game as we will see in Vancouver the next couple of weeks.
This is simply about making the game safer for the fantastic athletes who play it; it is about their welfare.
"I understand the game is tough and you have to play hard, but this happened because he [Salmela] was in a vulnerable position," Elias told The Star-Ledger in New Jersey on Wednesday. "They're [the NHL] trying to cut down on injuries like this, with guys coming from behind and finishing checks like that. That's where the guy has to be smart and see the other guy is in front. Don't try to kill him.
"I think it's a respect thing."
If NHL players won't respect their opposition, if they don't remember they're all in the same boat, then the league should protect them from themselves. Hockey shouldn't continue to chance another Masterton.